Obituary: Aruna Asaf Ali

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The Independent Online
Aruna Asaf Ali, one of the grandes dames of India's freedom movement, was a restless revolutionary who ran an effective, militant underground network against British rule in the early Forties.

Her frail beauty and charming exterior belied the inner strength with which she defied British rule and, after Independence, exhibited the same revolutionary zeal for the improvement of the lot of women, the poor and depressed, through the left-oriented newspaper she began in the Sixties.

Ali shot to prominence in 1942 after the British arrested Mahatma Gandhi and other national leaders for adopting the Quit India resolution against imperial rule. Undeterred by the country-wide crackdown against pro-independence activists, Ali eluded the police and achieved the impossible by hoisting the Indian flag at a prominent spot in the western city of Bombay. This spot is now hallowed ground.

Thereafter, the British government posted a reward for her capture, but she remained free, disobeying even the Mahatma's request to surrender on account of her frailty. Gandhi wrote:

I have been filled with admiration for your courage and heroism. You are reduced to a skeleton. Do come out and surrender yourself and win the prize offered for your arrest. Reserve the prize money for the Harijan [untouchables] cause.

Soon after Independence in 1947, however, she took Gandhi's advice and entered active politics, joining the Congress Party briefly, before moving on to the resuscitated Socialist Party in 1948, which espoused a philosophy closer to her beliefs.

But Ali was unable to equate the compulsions of power with her ideals of a classless and prosperous India and, disillusioned with the Socialists, joined the Communist Party of India in the mid-Fifties. But, after the first few years, Communism too held little attraction for her and Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin at the Soviet Communist Congress in 1956 finally spurred her into leaving the Party.

She remained a Communist sympathiser, launching the popular English- language Link magazine and Patriot newspaper in New Delhi in the Sixties to reflect the pro-Soviet viewpoint, highly articulate and influential on the government of the day. Her newspaper produced some of India's top journalists but ran into serious management and financial problems in the late Eighties, appearing only intermittently.

Born Aruna Gangulee in 1909 at Kalka, a small town in the Himalayan foothills in the north, into a distinguished, upper-class Bengali family, she was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in Lahore. A nonconformist from the beginning, she broke with accepted Hindu convention and, at the age of 19, married Asaf Ali, a well-known Muslim lawyer, some 20 years her senior. Her husband died in the Fifties.

Asaf Ali was also a prominent member of the Congress Party, then in the forefront of the freedom struggle and his fiery young bride took little time in joining Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience movement, leading to her imprisonment in 1932 and, again, in 1941.

After Independence Ali was persuaded to become Delhi's first mayor in 1958 - the only female mayor the city has ever had - and was responsible for major civic reforms. But, tiring of petty politicking, she resigned, never to take up any government job or contest elections.

Ali concentrated instead through her newspaper and social movements on mobilising support for reforms for the depressed classes. She also opposed "needless industrialisation", believing it led to environmental degradation, social alienation and unrest.

Much to the disappointment of feminist groups, Ali also resisted greater affirmative action for women. She believed that job reservation was not the answer to the problems of poverty and illiteracy plaguing millions of women. The remedy lay in education, strengthening secular ideals and improving primary health care.

A staunch secularist, Ali took a group of over 100 volunteers from various religions and political parties to the northern state of Punjab in 1983 after Sikh militants began their 13-year-old civil war for independence to spread the message of goodwill and social harmony.

She received numerous awards for public service, including the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975 and the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration in 1986. Throughout her career Ali lived in a one-bedroomed apartment on the road bearing her husband's name, epitomising a generation which has disappeared in Indian politics.

Aruna Gangulee, political activist: born Kalka, India 16 July 1909; married 1928 Asaf Ali (deceased); died New Delhi 29 July 1996.